MONCKTON Songs from the
The whirligig of time certainly brings in his revenges. Once no star shone brighter than Lionel Monckton (1861–1924). For a decade after the turn of the century, his hit songs were the talk of the town, a town which might have been Vienna, Paris, or Berlin almost as easily as London. The titles of the musical comedies on which he collaborated, Our Miss Gibbs, The Quaker Girl, A Runaway Girl and the rest, were familiar from Birmingham to Barcelona, as his musical influence on opereta-zarzuela composers such as the Anglophile Pablo Luna clearly shows. Yet only The Arcadians, a surprisingly trenchant satire on contemporary London’s lifestyle, has kept a toehold in the lyric stage repertoire.
Hearing these songs a century on, it’s easy to feel that nostalgia isn’t what it was. Received wisdom is that the cataclysm of World War One swept away Monckton’s comfortable world, making it impossibly old-fashioned and fusty. But that’s not true of the music, which on this evidence has aged gracefully, coming down to our post-modern age with a delicate beauty fully justifying Andrew Lamb’s placing their composer “amongst the very finest British melodists”. Some of the more lyrical songs, such as Under the deodar and My cinnamon tree, conjure a wistful magic worthy of Elgar, musical poet-laureate of the passing age.
No. The sticking point for many will lie with the texts, many of them compounded of prurience, sentimentality and that infantilism so beloved of our Edwardian forefathers. Lamb’s notes talk of their naivety, but I’m far from convinced. I lost track of the countless little babys, little boys and little girls, all caught in behaviour modelling adult “naughtiness”. No need of Freud to explain the “little willies” and “little sausages”: even the “sly cigarette” of the girl caught “after school in the garden cool” (A Runaway Girl) turns to surreptitious hanky-panky:
“My head you turn’d
Don’t get me wrong. These days a smoking child is more wickedly shocking than a mere bit of fellatio behind the bike sheds. And Género ínfimo innuendo makes a joyful seasoning, especially when set as here to a luscious Viennese waltz, with an introduction and postlude making pert allusion to Wagner’s fire music from The Ring as our heroine “lights up”. But a little of this sort of thing goes a long way, and the album can’t quite avoid an air of lubricious sameness which doesn’t afflict the complete shows.
When Our Miss Gibbs was put on a couple of years back at the Finborough Theatre in London, its exuberant wit opened many eyes to the quality of the theatrical treasure we’ve chosen to discard. The two songs from Our Miss Gibbs which end Hyperion’s selection – written like many here for Monckton’s wife, the incomparable Gertie Millar – are certainly memorable, and they are matched not only by the pair from The Arcadians but by many of the less familiar items. Still, like all pleasures Monckton’s sweetmeats are perhaps best taken in moderation.
They are well served up by the performers. With her heady vocal production and vibrato-free, white-voiced purity, the Queen of Early Music may seem a surprising choice for songs written for light opera rather than cabaret singers; the results are eccentric, but no harm in that when Catherine Bott brings so much personality into play. The easy artistry with which she puts the texts across gives great pleasure: “Keep off the Grass” and “Tony from America” are specially successful, relaxed and naturally voiced rather than flung out to the gallery. The latter has an intriguing hint of American ragtime about it. Only the coloratura “Temple Bell” from the Japanese geisha-show The Mousmé and the driving pasodoble“Moonstruck”, come over as calculated rather than carefree. I warmed to her very much.
Richard Suart does a better line in comedy roués than juve leads, so “When I marry Amelia” and “Beautiful bountiful Bertie” go down better than the duets or the romantic “Pearl of sweet Ceylon”; but Suart’s intelligence in matters of style compensates for a lack of youthful vocal bloom. Good taste and gentle wit are Ronald Corp’s forte, and though there’s a sameness about his tempi, manifest in pastel-shaded rather than enthusiastic orchestral and choral contributions, the results are never less than sympathetic and match Bott’s style admirably. Andrew Lamb’s essay provides another plus. He outlines the history and the complicated matter of Monckton’s musical and literary collaborators with admirable brevity; and given that we’re only likely to see the shows in the theatre of our dreams, his plot contexts for these songs are absolutely invaluable. Add in Tony Faulkner’s flawlessly balanced sound and the near total lack of modern Monckton recordings, this generous disc is self-recommending.
© Christopher Webber 2008
2 April 2008